Photo: Mark Bowyer
Last updated 01 August 2011By Mark Bowyer
Just over a decade ago, Siem Reap was a small dusty provincial gateway to one of the greatest religious and architectural creations on earth - the temples of Angkor. Emerging from decades of war and political turmoil, only the most adventurous travellers made their way to Cambodia and Angkor Wat. Siem Reap province had been a Khmer Rouge stronghold and attacks in and around the temples continued into the early 1990s.
But as a long elusive peace finally descended on Cambodia, pockets of travellers from around the globe were left awestruck by the majesty of the temples and the seeds of Siem Reap’s modern tourism boom were sown.
Few towns have been transformed as comprehensively in so short a time as modern day Siem Reap. The population has swelled as new hotels, restaurants, bars, travel companies and a new airport have created thousands of new jobs. And it’s all thanks to the ruins of an ancient kingdom.
While the tourism explosion has brought with it some expected downside, both the temples and the town are holding up well so far.
The temples of Angkor date from the Khmer kingdom that peaked between the 9th to the 13th century dominating modern day Cambodia as well as large tracts of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Their scale is vast. 12th century Angkor Wat may be the largest and best known but it’s just one of hundreds of temples strewn over hundreds of kilometres.
A rich selection of temples can easily be accessed from Siem Reap; as always, it pays to travel beyond the standard temple tour.
Siem Reap - the name means “victory over Siam” - was a tiny village when French explorer Henri Mouhot stumbled across the jungle encased Angkor ruins in 1860. Mouhot’s visit coincided with growing French colonial interest in Indochina.
There are two frequently quoted passages from Mouhot’s travels that capture his profound appreciation of the grandeur of the temples and a mindset that would underpin the French colonial project in Indochina.
"One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michael Angelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged."
"At Ongcor, there are ...ruins of such grandeur... that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?"
Angkor had been discovered - at least by the West - though locals are thought to have worshipped continuously at the temples from the fall of the Khmer empire centuries before.
The 1920s and 30s saw the first wave of temple-seeking European tourists arrive and inspired the construction of the Grand Hotel (the Raffles Grand d’Angkor these days) which opened in 1932.
But World War II brought Cambodia’s first mini tourism boom to an abrupt hault. In the 50s and early 60s a new boom began as Angkor again became the travel destination of choice for the adventurous and the glamourous.
And again, the boom proved to be shortlived.
Jackie Kennedy’s 1967 visit coincided with the encroachment of the Vietnam War on Cambodian territory and the related rise of the Khmer Rouge. Her late husband's role in the critical early years of the Vietnam War must have given her pause for thought.
By 1970, Cambodia was fighting to survive the spillover of war in Vietnam across its borders and a growing Khmer Rouge insurgency. Siem Reap and the Angkor temples fell into the hands of North Vietnamese communists. Darker days followed in 1975 with the Khmer Rouge seizure of power in Phnom Penh.
Another tourism boom ended, Pol Pot’s reign of terror began, and Angkor disappeared from international view until peace returned to Cambodia more than twenty years later.
Despite decades of war, looting and vandalism, not to mention centuries of grinding tension with the elements - what remains of the temples is breathtaking.
Angkor’s third tourism boom has been the biggest and most enduring to date. While Siem Reap is fighting to retain its small town feel. But it remains a lovely place to pass time between temple expeditions. Its stunning boutique hotels, mellow tree lined streets, wonderful French era shophouses, as well as great food and shopping make it a near perfect complement to the temple experience.
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